Visiting the Shires factory
I had the explicit pleasure of visiting the S.E. Shires factory and trying out a wide range of their trombones. They are located in a humble industrial area in Hopedale, Massachusetts. It is about one hour drive from Boston, and four hours from New York. The factory building is very discreet, and you would not think that a world-class brass instrument manufacturer is based within such a timid building, but do not let the appearance fool you, they are serious about their business, and really know what they are doing! And how to do it. And why. And probably when too. Great New York trombone player (and Shires artist) Michael Davis was kind enough to give me an introduction to Steve Shires himself and Ben Griffin (Shires sales rep and pro trombone player). Ben has deep knowledge about trombones of all sizes and was very helpful during my visit. He set me up in the Shires showroom and kept feeding me with new trombone parts for several hours.
Since I knew I would be buying a small bore horn, this was where I started out. Unfortunately, I never got around to trying out their large bore trombones, which gives me a good reason to visit them again in the future! In this test, I will review both the parts I tried, as well as the Michael Davis Signature Model, and of course tell more about the model I settled for.
These are all the trombone parts I tried:
T00NLW My choice
T95NLW, YRC (from the Michael Davis model)
T0 2N (Nickel with #2 venturi, .500 bore) My choice
T0 2.5 (Brass, #2.5 venturi, .500 bore) My alternative choice
SY1.5 My choice
S.E. Shires Vintage 6 1/2 AL
S1YLW 8 (Lightweight yellow brass, soldered bead 8″)
S1RGLW 8 (Lightweight, dual alloy, red brass stem, and gold brass flare, soldered bead 8”)
S1YLW 7.75 (Lightweight yellow brass, soldered bead 7.75″) My choice
S1YLM 7.75 (Mediumweight yellow brass, soldered bead, 7.75″)
Michael Davis signature bell (7.5” bell)
Click here to read my full Shires trombone review.
Test: Shires bells
All bells tested were two-piece bells, meaning that they are made of two pieces of metal that are soldered together just before the point where the bell diameter expands drastically. When looking at the trombone on a stand, the soldering is made horizontal. The metal in the two-piece bell gets a bit thicker towards the rim and delivers a clear sound that does not crack easily.
I did not test any one-piece bells. Since the metal tends to get a bit thinner at the end of the bell, they usually feel a bit less stable and have a slightly more mellow sound. They can also deliver a more open feel, sometimes at the cost of precision. This does not mean that they are less good – that is purely a matter of taste – but these are not the characteristics I am looking for in a small-bore trombone bell suited for jazz solo playing.
About soldered beads
The bead is the rounded rim on the bell, and a soldered bead means that there is a metal string inside the rim, and it is all soldered together. This is the most common way of producing bells and gives the bell more stability which means that it is easier to control for the player. With an unsoldered bead, the metal ring within the rim is not soldered onto the trombone itself. (This could potentially result in a razzling sound during playing if the build quality isn´t high enough.) An unsoldered bead can result in a more complex, deeper sound. It does not project as good, and the attack is not as clear. Old Conn trombones have unsoldered beads, while all Bach and King trombones (and newer Conn) have soldered beads.
Shires S1YLW 8
This 8” yellow brass bell has a great response and is very comfortable to play with. It is a perfect size for 3rd trombone playing in big band or commercial playing. I wouldn´t use it for a small group jazz gig though, here a smaller bell does a better job for me. The bell responds very well in all registers but is not as light and bouncy as the 7.75” bells when playing jazz solos.
Shires S1RGLW 8
Very similar to the S1YLW 8 bell, but this one is gold brass. It is a bit darker and more “serious” than its yellow brass sister, making it a great bell for light orchestral playing or church gigs. I wouldn´t mind having a 8” bell at my shelf at home as well as a smaller one, but the choice between yellow brass and gold brass is a bit tricky. I would personally go for the gold brass, just to make the leap from my smaller bell a bit larger.
Shires S1YLW 7.75
This is the bell I ended up buying. A great bell for jazz playing with an extraordinary response and an open, clear, and projected sound. I tried it both with and without counterweight and ended up with it on. This tightens everything up a bit, giving me even more control. Without the counterweight, the horn feels a bit softer and less focused. Placing it on the lower bar gives a result somewhat in between with and without counterweight. All three options are useful, and I might end up switching between the settings for variation.
Shires S1YLM 7.75
This is also a nice bell, but not my first choice. It is a bit more mellow and lacks some of the bouncyness which I fancied with the more lightweight S1YLW 7.75 bell.
Michael Davis’s signature trombone
This is a great horn with a very good response. The size matches the King 2B I was playing before pretty well. To me, it felt a bit too narrow, and despite the smaller bell, it actually sounded a bit darker, probably due to the more lightweight bell. I still think this horn is a great match for many players liking small horns, especially players who don’t overblow their horns and have a good breathing technique.
Narrower tubing calls for more precision with the air while bigger tubes and large bore trombones tend to be a bit more forgiving (not that you should not have good breathing technique regardless of the size of your trombone!). I tried the Michael Davis Signature bell with the slightly bigger T00NLW slide, but this was not a perfect match. This bell calls for the Michael Davis slide! (And the guys at Shires won’t sell the parts from this trombone separately anyway.) The handlebar on the Michael Davis slide is very thin. This feels really nice and gives it a sports car feel. I want this on all my slides!
Michael Davis told me that he is so pleased with this trombone that he actually sold both his King 2B and 3B! Try it out – it might very well be your dream horn! I found this trombone to be clearly superior to my otherwise beloved King 2B (anniversary model with silver bell, a copy of their own legendary Silversonic from the sixties), but I also found out that my way of playing was better supported by a slightly bigger horn, and I therefor ended up with a .500 bore slide and 7 3/4” bell. The Michael Davis model has a .495 bore and 7,5” bell.
Shires trombone slide: lightweight or not?
I once tried a lightweight slide on my King 2B, and I found it to be a poor solution with a weaker, less defined sound and attack. That made me believe that lightweight is just not the way to go unless you are very weak or never play louder than a whisper.
Shires lightweight products do not feel as lightweight as other low-fat trombone parts from other manufacturers, so don´t be scared of this label if you like a big, fat sound. But you have to try it yourself, as it is a matter of taste and style of playing, rather than which is the best.
Steve Shires spinning bells in the factory
Test: Shires tuning slides:
SY1.5 – my choice
I was surprised that different tuning slides change the feel of the trombone so much! I ended up with the SY1.5 tuning slide, a slightly smaller model than the standard SY. It delivers a very focused sound with quick response – all qualities I was looking for in my new horn.
The standard SY tuning slide did not do the job for me. It almost made the small-bore trombone feel like a large-bore instrument! Very open and with a rich sound. Great match for someone who mainly plays large-bore trombones?
The SY1.0 is somewhere in between the two others. Slightly bigger than the SY1.5 and a bit smaller than the standard SY tuning slide.
Luckily I did not have the chance to try all available tuning slide models, or I would probably still be in the showroom trying different trombone configurations…
Test: Shires mouthpiece
S.E. Shires Vintage 6 1/2 AL mouthpiece
My first impression of this mouthpiece is that it is really well-designed. It has a great feel and response and produces a rich sound with many overtones. The only reason I didn´t get it is that I am currently very happy with the flatter rim on my Dennis Wick 7CS (which has since been replaced with a lovely Laskey mouthpiece). If I were still playing my old Schilke 51B, I would have switched to the Shires 6 1/2 AL mouthpiece immediately! Finding the right brass mouthpieces is always a matter of taste, and there are not really any right or wrong opinions. My brief contact with the Shires mouthpiece did give me the sensation of a very well-designed product, so if they make a mouthpiece with ruffly the same dimensions, rim shape, and cup size as the one you play today, I would recommend that you check their mouthpieces out.
Shires general trombone design
Shires trombones look very much like, well, trombones. It´s a classic WYSIWYG design (what you see is what you get), and basically, there is nothing wrong with this. But in my opinion, they could do more with the design of the instruments. Instrument craftsmanship of this caliber deserves a unique look. Make them stick out – the performance is good enough to justify a bolder design and would make the horns more visible and recognizable on stage. Is this a missed opportunity, or are Steve Shires’ trombone visual designs just reflecting his philosophy of building no-nonsense, top-of-the-line instruments with focus on great performance?
My Shires trombone
I went to the Shires factory knowing that they make some of the best trombones out there, and I was not in doubt that I would leave with a great new instrument. Trying out the different models and getting to feel how big a difference small design changes do to the trombone was a great experience.
My objective was to find a horn with great response and precision. A good sound is also important, but luckily I tend to like the sound of a trombone if I like the feel of the instrument. In my opinion, it is easier to find a good sound on a trombone that is easy and nice to play on, rather than vice versa.
I ended up with the following Shires small bore trombone configuration:
Bell: S1YLW lightweight yellow brass 7.75” bell,
Slide: T00NLW lightweight .500 bore slide with nickel tubing
Lead pipe: T0 2N nickel with #2 venturi
Tuning slide: SY1.5
I still use my old Dennis Wick 7CS mouthpiece.
This is by far the best trombone I have ever played! It has a unique response, great precision, and a full, rich sound. The horn can play incredibly loud without cracking (as a matter of fact, I can´t really get it to crack…). The tone is not as sparkling as my old silver 2B, but this does not feel like a sacrifice. It has a more modern sound, and I actually prefer this. The horn really improves my playing. Whatever I throw at it, it turns into music. This trombone gives me more confidence and I feel much more relaxed while playing than before.
The high A flat is usually a difficult tone on a trombone. It can be harder to hit than the surrounding notes and the sound is often a bit muffled. But not on my new horn – this little detail tells me a lot about the general quality of Steve Shires’ instruments!
Do I recommend Shires trombones? YES!
But – they have soooo many options, that you will need a quite big selection of parts at hand in order to find the perfect match for you.
“Standard” and vintage trombones vs. custom trombones
Many old and standard pro horns (Bach, King, Conn, etc.) have a great sound and feel very nice to play. But my experience when switching to the custom / high-quality small trombone manufacturers is somewhat the same as going from a Ford Mondeo to a luxury line Mercedes. The Mondeo is great and does everything you need a car to do with ease, with plenty of space, power, and comfort. How could it possibly be much better? But then you get into the luxury Mercedes, and realize that everything could be improved, and by quite a lot!
That´s how I feel about custom trombones such as Shires, Schmelzer, Rath, and others. They add something to the feel and comfort of playing that I have not found in the “standard” horns. I like that. I have had the opportunity to try several of the smaller luxury brands on the same occasion, and for me, Shires was clearly a better fit than the rest of the bunch. But that´s my personal opinion.
I think some of the older vintage horns can have a more interesting sound than the new Mercedes-bones. Lighter and with more personality. But honestly, I don´t care! I believe that any instrument (especially a good one) will sound like me eventually, and whatever I might lose (but not necessarily miss) in the sound, I will live happily without it. Modern trombones tend to have a more composed and focused sound, and most of the time, I prefer working with that.
Good luck with your trombone hunting!
Coming up: exclusive interview with Steve Shires and report from the factory floor.